Some Indian villages prefer to put women in power
India’s parliament erupted at a proposal last month to reserve one-third of seats for women. But village-level quotas putting women in power have won many supporters.
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Critics argued that the quota would allow male politicians to promote female relatives to do their bidding, and that it could advance wealthy, upper-caste women at the expense of poorer lower castes.
But its supporters pointed to the success of a similar quota introduced into India’s village-level governments – called panchayats – in 1993. Under this system, every five years, more than a million women are voted into one-third of seats reserved for them.
Though academic and anecdotal evidence show that some women serve on panchayats as proxies for their husbands, overall, they also find that the quota is empowering women – and not just women who have come to power – by providing better services and a little female inspiration.
Women lag behind
At the highest levels, India has become accustomed to seeing women in power. Years before such a milestone was reached in the West, Indira Gandhi became India’s first female prime minister. Her daughter-in-law, Sonia, today heads the Congress party that leads the coalition government. India’s president, Pratibha Patil, became the first women to hold this post in 2007.
But the lofty status of these few icons belies the real situation of female politicians in India: Fewer than 11 percent of members of the country’s parliament are women.
And the inequality between men and women in political life is a reflection of a gulf that exists in practically every sphere of life in India. Though increasing numbers of urban middle-class women are going to work and holding senior positions in business, nationally, the position of Indian women is grim.
Women lag behind men in literacy – 54 percent can read and write compared with 75 percent of men – and income: Women earn less than one-third of men’s wages on average. Because women have little power, and in many cases are still expected to bring with them a dowry when they marry, parents prefer sons. Millions of baby girls are aborted every year, which has led to a ratio of 933 women per 1,000 men in India.
In rural India, which is by any measure more patriarchal and conservative than urban India, the promotion of women to public positions of power constitutes nothing short of a revolution.
The state of Haryana, though relatively prosperous, is one of the most backward in the country in terms of female empowerment. It has the most skewed gender ratio in India, with 861 women per 1,000 men. Here, even Hindu women tend to cover their heads with veils in public.
Virander Singh, who in 2005 became sarpanch – or chief – of her tiny village, Puniska, in Haryana, exemplifies the slow change that reservations can bring.
Sitting on a charpoy, or string-strung bed, in the lobby of her house, which doubles as her office, she describes the improvements she has made to the village’s water supply, rebuilding and improving water pumps so villagers have easier access to drinking water.